Chances are if you grew up going to church you know the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Like all of the Lord's parables, it is a story with multiple layers, some of which are easy to overlook.

For example, many Christians are not aware that the exchange that precedes the parable is between Jesus and a lawyer.  Indeed this fact is so central to the account that we could call it the story of “The Lawyer and the Good Samaritan.”

You see, there's something that happens that prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The conversation is initiated by        the question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now when it says “lawyer” here, you should not think of Hubbard, Terry and Britt.  No this is a different kind of “lawyer.”

In this context, a “lawyer” would be an expert in the Law of Moses, the Torah. This would be someone who is very knowledgeable in all the laws given to Israel through Moses, what is recorded in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—all the civil laws, religious laws, ceremonial laws, and moral laws. And this expert in the Law is trying to test Jesus, to get his take on a very important question.

So Jesus responds by asking the lawyer what is written in the law? And he answered, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.'

Now that actually is a brilliant answer, as far as it goes.

It is an absolutely accurate summary of God's Ten Commandments: Love God with everything you've got, and love your neighbor as much as yourself.

And the Lord says to the lawyer, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But notice what seems to be lurking in the lawyer's question: What shall  “I do” to inherit eternal life?

Like all the Jews, the lawyer believed that by his doing something he could earn his way to eternal life; in other words he believed in works righteousness.

The truth is, what Jesus taught and what conflicted with Jewish law was that there is nothing we can do that will be good enough to merit everlasting life.

Your works won't cut it.

But this lawyer doesn't grasp that yet.  So Jesus wants to straighten him out on this, to disabuse him of the notion that you can work your way up the ladder to heaven.

And maybe some of us need to get that straight too.

Well, this lawyer thinks he does perform the Law well enough. But he wants to be sure he can narrow down who qualifies as his neighbor.  So in order to justify himself, Luke explains, he asks a follow-up question of Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, who qualifies to get my love?  If I can eliminate the bad people, and the disgusting people, and the people who would inconvenience me, he seems to be thinking, then I just might be able to do this.

The Lord answers the lawyer's question with the parable.

The story takes place on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; this road was, and still is notoriously dangerous. It was a seventeen-mile hike of narrow rocky passages, and of sudden turnings, which made it easy for robbers to take advantage of travelers.

It would have been no surprise to listeners that a human being was mugged and beaten along the side of the road.

And that's all we know about the victim; he was a human being.

We don't know if he was Jewish or a Gentile, if he was wealthy or poor, a good person or a bad person.

We know more about the people who passed him by, or at least we know about their professions.  The first passer-by was a priest, a man of some standing in that society.  The second passer-by was a Levite.  Scholars speculate that there were several reasons why the Levite passed by.

Maybe he was afraid the same fate would fall on him, so he scurries by out of fear.  Perhaps he doesn't know the man's religion or class, and does not see him as a neighbor or deserving of help.

The listening lawyer would have understood the Levite's predicament.

The third passer-by was a Samaritan.  Now recall that Samaritans were  looked down upon and marginalized by the Jews.

Saying a Samaritan passed by was like saying, “the low-life, good for nothing, scum of the earth came by.”

And yet this Samaritan goes above and beyond reasonable expectations in helping the beaten man.  He binds his wounds, gives him his clothes, puts him on his horse, takes him to an inn, pays for his room and food, and then comes back to check on him.

Having told that story, Jesus then asks the lawyer to identify which traveler acted as a neighbor to the injured man.

The lawyer answers “The one who showed mercy.”

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.

Now, it's easy to overlook the Lord's teaching points.

The first is that loving our neighbor means actually helping our neighbor, not ignoring his needs.

Second, by trying to qualify who his neighbor is, the lawyer identifies with the priest and the Levite, and thereby condemns himself.

But the third point is easiest to overlook; Jesus Himself is the Good Samaritan.

Like Samaritans in general, Christ is ultimately marginalized and condemned by Jewish authorities.

Just as the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to care for the injured traveler, Jesus paid the price for our salvation.

Now we see what loving our neighbor looks like, both in the story that Jesus tells, and in the story that Jesus lived, in His life and death and resurrection.

Jesus is our Good Samaritan.  He comes to us when we are in greatest need; he has compassion on us, and there is no limit to what He did-and will do-to save us.

Amen.

 


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